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22 Sep 2020

Connections Across Time: Sholto Kynoch on the 2020 Oxford Lieder Festival

‘A brief history of song’ is the subtitle of the 2020 Oxford Lieder Festival (10th-17th October), which will present an ambitious, diverse and imaginative programme of 40 performances and events.

Connections Across Time: Oxford Lieder Festival, 10-17 October 2020

An interview by Claire Seymour

Above: Sholto Kynoch


Recent OLF’s have focused on a single composer, such as The Schumann Project in 2016, or a specific context, such as fin-de-siècle Vienna during 2017’s spotlight on ‘last of the Romantics’, Gustav Mahler, and 2018’s The Grand Tour: A European Journey in Song. In 2019, a theme united the diverse concerts and events: Tales of Beyond - Magic, Myths and Mortals. In conversation, Artistic Director Sholto Kynoch explained that there were several factors behind the drive to expand the aesthetic sweep of this year’s Festival, Connections Across Time.

“It was a combination of two things. First, a desire to look forwards, as part of our Song Futures initiative through which we commission new works and programme existing works by living composers. We aim to present at least three world premieres every year, and this year audiences will be able to hear the music of 27 living composers. Then, I was keen to include more early music, to go back to the Baroque and earlier, and to explore links between different parts of the song repertoire that have developed over time. In song, there’s naturally a relationship between music and literature, but we wanted to expand such connections to embrace the visual arts, philosophy, any subject really.”

Soraya Mafi.jpgSoraya Mafi

Inevitably, some of Sholto’s initial plans for such interdisciplinary conversations and interactions have been compromised by the global pandemic, but in other ways the necessity of delivering a Festival online has opened up new opportunities, and the range and scope of this year’s events and performances is astonishing. One strand that caught my eye is the focus on Hafez, the 14th-century Persian poet, and his reception and influence on both western literature and art-song across the centuries. Following a study event, Hafez and Persian Poetry in Song - in which Dominic Brookshaw, Fellow in Persian at Wadham College, will introduce Hafez and the intricate ghazal form in which he wrote; Francesca Leoni, Assistant Keeper and Curator of Islamic Art at the Ashmolean Museum will reveal some of the treasures of the Museum’s collection; British-Iranian composer Soosan Lolavar, Professor of Composition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, will discuss Iranian musical traditions; and British-Iranian soprano Soraya Mafi will performs songs by Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, and a setting of Rumi, ‘Heart Snatcher’, by the young Iranian composer Mahdis Kashani - bass-baritone Michael Mofidian and pianist Jâms Coleman will perform a programme which includes settings by Schumann of Rückert and texts from Goethe’s West-East Divan, both heavily influenced by Hafez, as well as songs by Brahms setting Georg Daumer’s translations of Hafez and four Russian translations set by Nikolai Tcherepnin.

Michael Mofidian.jpgMichael Mofidian

After a second study event, exploring translations such as Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, which have been set by many composers, and a discussion about the way in which Hafez has continued to inspire composers - such as Karol Szymanowski and Sally Beamish - during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Hafez day will culminate with a recital by Ian Bostridge, this year’s artist-in-residence, and Julius Drake in the Holywell Music Room, including settings of Rückert by Schubert and Mahler, some of Wolf’s Goethe settings, and selections from Hans Werner Henze’s Songs from the Arabian, which was written for Bostridge in 1996.

Bostridge, Ian C Sim Canetty-Clarke.jpgIan Bostridge © Sim Canetty-Clarke.

Why Hafez? Sholto’s interest in Muslim-Western cultural encounters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was initially sparked when he attended a lecture at Oxford’s Persian Institute. He points out that the ghazal form was written to be sung, and a little research reveals that nineteenth-century Orientalists such as Sir William Jones - the ‘father’ of Persian studies in the West, who translated Persian, Arabic and Turkish poetry into English, French and Latin - responded to both the Romantic sensibility of his poetry, its beauty, wildness and sublimity, and to its musicality: ‘The wildness and simplicity of Persian Song pleased me, so much that I have attempted to translate it in verse […] I have, as nearly as possible, imitated the cadence and accent of the Persian measure, from which every reader, who understands music, will perceive that the Asiatic numbers are as capable of a regular measure as any air in Metastasio.’ Sholto’s reference to Hafez as “a sort of Shakespeare-figure in Iran” makes me wonder whether Jones’ translations had a similar impact on the development of ideas and literature as translations of Shakespeare did on French and German Romantics. The events will, he says, explore “eight centuries of the reception of Hafez”.

Soosan Lolavar pic.jpgSoosan Lolavar.

The Great Debate, led by Paul Smith, Director of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, promises similarly broad and diverse cultural discussion and engagement. In the context of considering the significance, past and present, of the ‘religion versus science’ debate initiated by Darwin’s concept of evolution by natural selection - and in the very room, the Huxley Room, which on 30th June 1860 hosted the ‘Huxley-Wilberforce Debate’ - the ways in which these ideas influenced both the general outlook and choice of song texts of Elgar and Chausson will be explored. “The influence of nature on composers is well-known,” says Sholto, “but the context of the exploration of new land, advanced travel, and growing understanding of the natural world were strong influences at that time. If anything, the arguments between Darwinists and tradition theologians made the natural world even more miraculous as there was increasing awareness of the complexity of nature.”

Holywell.jpgThe Holywell Music Room.

These are ‘big ideas’, and Sholto is aware that hour-long study events can only scratch the surface. “But, we wanted to draw on being in Oxford, particularly this year when the digital festival has the potential to reach a much larger audience. We can champion art-song. It’s been 20 years of hard slog, getting people through the doors to hear a song recital. Chamber music festivals have an existing audience that can be relied upon, but with song it’s a struggle.” When asked why this is so, Sholto suggests it’s because audiences find art-song recitals and their ‘etiquette’ slightly intimidating. Recent research into ‘audience experience’ yielded some interesting findings. “Six ‘culturally aware non-attendees’ - who regularly attended theatre, exhibitions and other musical events, but who had consciously decided that song was not for them - were ‘bribed’ to agree to attend at least five OLF concerts and then asked to write up their experience. All said they would come back in the future. One said that it was only at their fourth concert that that realised it was acceptable to look at the singer.” It’s disconcerting, Sholto says, to be so close to a performer, who “looks you in the eye and pours their heart out”, and “it can be unnerving to see someone emote and communicate, and feel with you.”

Sholto-Kynoch-Piano.jpgSholto Kynoch

Not only will larger audiences be reached, but this year’s OLF events will take place in a wider range of venues in and around Oxford - Broughton Castle, the Ashmolean Museum, the Bodleian Library, Trinity College, the Upper Library in Queen’s College, Merton College Chapel, Oxford’s Botanical Gardens. Sholto had hoped to livestream all the performances and events, but the challenges in making the study events fully live proved unassailable. That said, 30 out of 40 events are fully live, and the ten study events all have an element of live interaction; these are pre-recorded but will be framed by live discussions with the speakers before and after the event. As Sholto says, “With a digital Festival, it’s not possible to meet in person, but audiences can still ‘meet’ performers, and perhaps in ways not possible in formal concert situations.”

Indeed, the digital world has opened up new possibilities and will undoubtedly lead to richer experiences in the future, when ‘normal’ concert-going life hopefully resumes. The April 2020 Spring Festival had to be cancelled, but OLF were able to present online recorded interviews with singers: in these early days of lockdown, Sholto laughs, “there were no production values at all … but people loved it. It was fantastic being able to ‘meet’ with a favourite singer in their living room for a chat.”

Rowan Pierce.jpgRowan Pierce

Another initiative this year is that each evening recital will begin with a short group of Schubert songs performed by singers - including Fleur Barron, Rowan Pierce, Nardus Williams, William Morgan, among others - who have begun forging successful careers in the last few years, “carving their way up the ladder”, but who have been very hard hit by the current crisis in the performing arts. In total, 110 artists have been engaged for the Festival, even though it is “half the size of normal”: “We’re proud and pleased to be providing work for people in this desperate time.”

OLF’s outreach and educational work has also been affected by the pandemic. A project involving primary schools, which saw small numbers of students working to create their own song cycle, was on the cusp of expansion: “we wanted to keep the integrity of the close contact with groups of five or six students, but also enlarge the reach, and planned to work with an entire school, making six or seven visits over two terms, working towards a whole-school concert presenting words and music that the students had produced themselves.” Online activities are still ongoing, and visits should resume in January 2021, though the project has been necessarily scaled back.

Julius Drake006 Marco Borggreve.jpgJulius Drake © Marco Borggreve.

And, looking ahead, what of next spring, and of OLF’s 20th anniversary events next year? Covid-19 has inevitably impacted present and future plans. This year’s Festival features no large ensembles - though The Hermes Experiment and the Orlando Consort perform late night concerts - or two-singer recitals. A winter residential course has been cancelled. Sholto confesses that he is six months behind in terms of planning: there was so much extra work for this year’s Festival, “the whole programme had to be rethought, everything had to be learned from scratch and involved complicating factors - filming, streaming.”

But, a glance at the singers and musicians whom we will be able to hear between 10th-17th October - Ian Bostridge, Roderick Williams, Carolyn Sampson, Lucy Crowe, James Gilchrist, Sarah Connolly, Alessandro Fisher, Benjamin Appl, Robin Tritschler, Ashley Riches, Julius Drake, Joseph Middleton, Christopher Glynn, Anna Tilbrook, Graham Johnson, Saskia Giorgini, Simon Lepper, Sean Shibe, Hélène Clément, Elizabeth Kenny, Imogen Cooper, and Sholto himself - will surely restore any song- and music-lover’s spirits.

Claire Seymour

The 2020 Oxford Lieder Festival runs from 10th-17 th October. Festival and Day Passes, and Single Event Tickets can be purchased here .

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